National Maritime Museum, London
22 November 2013 – 21 April 2014
By EMILY SPICER
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), the son of a London barber and wig-maker, became the quintessential British artist of his time, translating into paint the watery soul of an island nation and its prolific and sometimes violent maritime exploits. Seascapes account for more than half his output and include paintings of whaling ships, fishing boats, shipwrecks and battles. Turner even painted slave ships, their human cargo shown tossed to the sharks, to help highlight the barbarity of an industry that had been abolished in Britain just a few years earlier, but continued in America and elsewhere. Given the prominence of his seascapes then, it is more than a little surprising that Turner and the Sea is the first major exhibition solely to explore the artist’s maritime output, a goal it achieves with aplomb.
Visitors are greeted by a canvas that would make the sea legs of even the most hardened sailor buckle. The Wreck of a Transport Ship (c1810), depicting an unfolding tragedy with all the turbulence and confusion you would expect from a Turner painting, both draws you in and pushes you back, forcing you to grapple with the sublime and the minute simultaneously. The flurry of small boats sent to pluck survivors from the sinking vessel, pitching and rolling behind them, are also on the verge of being engulfed by the frenetic waters in a composition that gives the eye no focus point on which to settle, embroiling the viewer in the restless motion of the scene.
The exhibition includes paintings by some of Turner’s most distinguished predecessors and contemporaries, including Claude-Joseph Vernet, Jacob van Ruisdael and John Constable, but the the result is to highlight their deficiencies – Turner soars above them like a hoisted mainsail unfurled in the wind. Compared to the careful, closely painted scenes of his fellow artists, Turner’s shimmering canvases are so full of life that it is almost possible to hear the sea. And this is what he would have wanted. It is no secret that he used to finish paintings as they hung on the walls of exhibitions, determined that they should stand apart in the crowded galleries.
The showpiece – given fitting prominence in an exhibition held at the National Maritime Museum – is undoubtedly the heroically proportioned The Battle of Trafalgar. Painted in 1824, 19 years after the event, it was Turner’s only royal commission. Cinematic in its ambition, but executed with the lightness and delicacy of a watercolour, the scene depicts a moment of celebration as the battle is won. It is an epic study of both strength and fragility. HMS Victory, proud and triumphant, dominates the scene, but its billowing sails appear almost translucent in the unearthly light. The falling mast, it is suggested, represents Nelson, cut down on the deck of his ship, while sailors, both British and French, pile on to a small boat in the foreground to escape the icy grip of the sea. This is Turner at his most ostentatious, his most showy and his most formulaic.
As a new generation of artists emerged, keen to emulate Turner’s style, the competitive master decided to take his work in a new direction. Years of experimentation followed that would divide critics, but ensure his enduring appeal. In this way Turner has been seen as somewhat of a visionary bridging 200 years of innovation in painting in one lifetime. His light-drenched canvases famously influenced Monet, but his later watercolour studies, minimalist and bold, appeal to lovers of 20th-century abstraction. His sketchbooks are included here, full of barely decipherable notations of colour; a splash of vermilion indicates a harpooned whale, a studied flick of the brush an approaching squall.
Much of the work in the last two rooms are considered unfinished, if only because they elude easy definition. The paintings included here certainly confounded John Ruskin, that most famous Victorian art critic and Turner’s most enthusiastic champion. While some are preparatory sketches others are clearly more than that. They are poetic reflections on the most basic and transitory aspect of the ocean’s surface, the wave. With great atmosphere and mystery, Waves Breaking against the Wind (c1835), produced with the confidence and self-reflection of an artist approaching the end of his career, is a painting stripped of all the artifice of the Romantic tradition, while still retaining the broody aspect of a painter projecting his inner-self on to the landscape.
Turner remains an almost mythic figure in the art history of the British Isles, constantly reinvented and reappropriated with each generation as new critical approaches add to the layers of understanding of this complex individual. However, at no point in this exhibition is an artistic -ism pinned to Turner or his output. The focus, refreshingly perhaps, remains on his competitive and defiant spirit. We are reminded of his innovation and ambition and, to some extent, the controversy his work generated. Turner and the Sea is a crowd pleaser, punctuated by a great many of the artist’s most iconic paintings. More than that, though, it is a rare opportunity to experience a significant and vital portion of his output, never before brought together on this scale. One can’t help but feel that, for Turner, the sea held irresistible challenges and a deep personal significance. And what better place to hold such an exhibition than the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.